Yanks take the series with a 4-2 win over the Rays behind Whitley’s arm and McCann’s bat

Make it three in a row for the Yankees. New York beat Tampa 4-2 to improve their record to 13-8. Chase Whitley threw five solid innings and the bullpen, not led by the usual cast, held on pretty well to win it. Yankees have won four series in a row and ten games out of last twelve. This is pretty enjoyable, guys. Winning!

Chase, the pitcher (Source: Getty)

Ace Whitley:
Chase Whitley was called up to make a spot start. Even though he had been throwing well in Triple-A, having to face a division rival and facing opponent’s best starter (Jake Odorizzi) is not an easy task.

However, the right-hander prevailed. In 5 innings, Whitley allowed six hits but allowed only one run and struck out five. His location and secondary pitches looked sharp. His only run allowed came on the third, when Asdrubal Cabrera hit an RBI double to drive in the runner from first. Unfazed, Whitley struck out the next two hitters – Evan Longoria and James Loney – to get out of the jam.

Just like Adam Warren last night, Whitley pitched well and gave the Yanks a good chance to win. Some spot starter, huh? I wonder if he’ll be making more ML starts now that Masahiro Tanaka is on the 15-day DL.

Call me Esmil:

In the sixth inning, Chasen Shreve came in after Chase to begin the bullpen relay. Tonight was definitely not one of Shreve’s strong showings, however. The lefty walked Loney to start the inning and allowed a long RBI triple to Logan Forsythe. Lead trimmed to 4-2. Shreve did strike out Kevin Kiermaier but Joe Girardi brought in Esmil Rogers to face Tim Beckham. With a runner on third and one out, Rogers struck out Beckham and Rene Rivera grounded out to avoid further damage.

But wait, he wasn’t done! Esmil went on to pitch two more scoreless innings, in which he struck out four and only allowed two baserunners. Big arms like Justin Wilson, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller had a heavy workload lately and Rogers came up big with this solid 2.2 innings of work. Memorable moment? That 90-mph slider/cutter to get Longoria to strike out swinging was pretty nasty.

(Source: Getty)

Leftovers:

Brian McCann is a fine catcher. He didn’t get off the the best offensive start (.250/.299/.417 before tonight’s game) but tonight, he drove in three of the four Yankee runs with two doubles. After tonight’s game, his line bumped up to .266/.310/.453, which is good for a 108 wRC+. Solid.

Speaking of a big free agent acquired after the 2013 season, Jacoby Ellsbury went 3-for-4, upping his season slash to .308/.400/.372. You know, I’d like to see a bit more power output from him but I can’t complain too much on how he’s been seeing the ball. Hopefully, more doubles and homers come along. So far, Ellsbury has 24 hits this season and only three are extra base hits. So basically, he’s the anti-Mark Teixeira.

Carlos Beltran went 0-for-3 and his season slash is now a dreadful .159/.217/.270. He’s also struck out 29.0% of the time, which is much higher than his 16.1% career rate. What’s the deal with that? Even when he struggled with injuries last year, he struck out around 17.8 % rate.

Instead of the unofficial 9th inning guy Andrew Miller, Chris Martin came into pitch for the save in the ninth inning. Martin had 14 saves in minor leagues but none in the majors before tonight. He pitched a scoreless inning — two lineouts, a single and a strikeout. Congrats on the first one, Chris!

Box Score, WPA, Standings:

Here is the box score, WPA, and updated standings. Spoiler: Yankees are still in the first place.


Source: FanGraphs


Yankees will have #BIGMIKE taking the mound tomorrow afternoon against Drew Smyly. Let’s get greedy and hope for a sweep. 14-8 is better than 13-9.

DotF: Bird and Jagielo both go deep in Trenton’s loss

Forgot to mention this yesterday: LHP Fred Lewis has been released, according to Nick Peruffo. Remember when there was talk Lewis might make the team out of camp last year? Spring Training is weird. Also, if you have a Baseball Prospectus subscription, make sure you check out this roundtable discussion about Greg Bird‘s approach and the difference between patient and passive.

Triple-A Scranton (3-2 win over Gwinnett)

  • RF Slade Heathcott: 1-4, 1 K — got picked off first
  • LF Ramon Flores: 0-3, 1 BB, 1 K
  • 2B Rob Refsnyder: 2-3, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 BB, 1 K — 8-for-15 (.533) in his last four games
  • LHP Eric Wooten: 5 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 1 Balk, 9/0 GB/FB — 51 of 76 pitchers were strikes (67%) … he figures to stay in the rotation now with Chase Whitley likely taking Masahiro Tanaka‘s spot in the Bronx
  • RHP Danny Burawa: 2 IP, zeroes, 2 K, 3/0 GB/FB — 16 of 21 pitches were strikes (76%)
  • RHP Jose Ramirez: 1 IP, zeroes, 2 K, 0/1 GB/FB — eight of 14 pitches were strikes (57%)

[Read more…]

Update: Tanaka headed to 15-day DL with “small” forearm strain

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

8:29pm: An MRI showed Tanaka has tendinitis in his wrist and a “small” forearm strain, Brian Cashman told reporters at Yankee Stadium. There is no change to his UCL. He will be placed on the 15-day DL and will “conservatively” miss about a month according to GM. Considering the elbow issue last year, there’s no such thing as a “small” forearm strain for Tanaka.

Here is Cashman talking about the injury:

8:17pm: According to George King, Masahiro Tanaka is not at Yankee Stadium tonight and it is “believed” he went for tests on his right wrist. The Yankees have not confirmed anything. Marly Rivera says Tanaka did not speak to the Japanese media this afternoon, which he usually does the day before a start.

Tanaka has never had any wrist problems as best I can tell. He missed all that time with the partial ligament tear in his elbow last season, and a few years ago he missed some starts with the Rakuten Golden Eagles due to a shoulder issue, but that’s all. No other injuries from what I can find.

Obviously losing Tanaka for any length of time would be pretty devastating to the Yankees. His last two starts have been pretty awesome, vintage Tanaka, and that guy is impossible to replace. Stay tuned for any updates.

Game 21: Spot Start

(Joe Robbins/Getty)
The return of Ace Whitley. (Joe Robbins/Getty)

The Yankees have won 12 of their first 20 games for the first time since, well, last season. They went 12-8 to start the 2014 season too. But wait! Last year’s team scored 84 runs and allowed 87 runs in those first 20 games. This year’s team has scored 103 runs and allowed only 79 runs. That’s much better. That matches what my eyes are telling me, that the 2015 Yankees are different and more well-rounded than the 2014 Yankees.

Anyway, for the first time this season the Yankees are turning to a spot sixth starter to give the regular members of their rotation an extra day of rest. Chase Whitley has been called up from Triple-A to make the spot start and I was surprised when he didn’t make the team out of Spring Training. He was awesome in camp. Apparently the plan all along was the keep Whitley stretched out in Triple-A for this exact reason though, to make occasional spot starts. Hopefully it pays off. Here is the Rays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. 1B Mark Teixeira
  4. C Brian McCann
  5. RF Carlos Beltran
  6. DH Garrett Jones
  7. 3B Chase Headley
  8. 2B Stephen Drew
  9. SS Didi Gregorius
    RHP Chase Whitley

It’s been a damn near perfect weather day in New York today and it’ll continue tonight. Great night for baseball. Tonight’s game is set to begin at 7:05pm ET and can be seen on YES locally and, depending on where you live, MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the game.

Roster Move: Gregorio Petit was optioned to Triple-A Scranton to clear a spot for Whitley, the team announced. So no backup infielder tonight. I guess this means Whitley will be sent down tomorrow and Jose Pirela (concussion) will be activated off the DL. Pirela’s been on a minor league rehab assignment these last few days and, for what it’s worth, he told Dan Pfeiffer he doesn’t feel his swing is all the way back yet. We’ll see.

2015 Draft: Phil Bickford

Phil Bickford | RHP

Background
Bickford was the tenth overall pick in the 2013 draft out of a Southern California high school, but he declined to take a below-slot offer from the Blue Jays and instead went to Cal State Fullerton. He had a 2.13 ERA with a 74/13 K/BB in 76 innings as a freshman, then transferred to the College of Southern Nevada, a two-year school that allows him to re-enter the draft this summer rather than wait until next year. Bickford has a 1.48 ERA with a 126/17 K/BB in 68 innings this spring.

Scouting Report
Listed at 6-foot-4 and 205 lbs., Bickford’s fastball velocity has been all over the place the last three years. He sat 92-94 mph with some 97s as a high school senior, dropped to 88-91 mph at Fullerton, and is now sitting 93-96 mph with a bunch of 98s this spring. Bickford throws both a slider and a curveball but will probably drop the curve as a pro because it’s his far inferior breaking ball. His changeup is very much a work in progress and will have to improve considerably for him to remain a starter long-term. Bickford is a great athlete with a fluid delivery, which suggests his presently below-average command can be improved long-term.

Miscellany
Bickford is one of the most polarizing prospects in the 2015 draft. Some see a future ace because of his fastball/slider combo and athleticism, others see a future reliever because his command and changeup are subpar. (Bickford pitched out of the bullpen in the Cape Cod League last summer and was electric, sitting 94-98 and striking out 42 in 27.2 innings.) MLB.com, Baseball America, and Keith Law (subs. req’d) ranked Bickford as the 16th, 20th, and 34th best prospect in this draft class in their latest rankings, respectively. For what it’s worth, the Yankees were connected to Bickford back in 2013, and scouting director Damon Oppenheimer seems to love Southern California pitchers. New York picks 16th and 30th overall this summer.

Slade Heathcott and Not-So-Irrational Optimism

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Spring Training this year was a great time to prospect watch. The Yankees had just about all of their top prospects in big league camp and they were all impressive. Aaron Judge, Greg Bird, Jacob Lindgren, and Luis Severino stood out in particular but they were hardly alone. It was a fun few weeks watching the kids play, that’s for sure.

Perhaps the most impressive prospect in Spring Training was a player who came to camp barely registering as a prospect at this point of his career: Slade Heathcott. Heathcott played only nine games last season due a pair of knee surgeries and only 230 games from 2011-14 due to knee and shoulder surgeries, which means a lot of missed development time. I ranked him the team’s 30th best prospect before the season, so he only barely made the cut.

The Yankees non-tendered Heathcott this past offseason because it was the only way to get him off the 40-man roster without exposing him to waivers. Heathcott could have signed with any other team as a free agent but instead returned to the Yankees on a minor league deal that included an invite to Spring Training, though he was an afterthought compared to the other prospects coming into camp.

Heathcott, now 24, had a dynamite showing in Spring Training, hitting .333/.450/.545 with three stolen bases in parts of 23 Grapefruit League games. He won the James P. Dawson Award as the top rookie in Spring Training and played so well the Yankees decided to send him to Triple-A Scranton to start the season rather than Double-A Trenton as planned.

So far this year Heathcott is hitting .347/.392/.472 (~145 wRC+) with two steals, a 7.5 BB%, and a 16.3 K% in 80 plate appearances with the RailRiders, including a torrid 14-for-25 (.560) stretch in his last seven games. He’s also running around center field making catches like this (GIF via Donnie Collins):

Slade Heathcott

We didn’t see Heathcott make any catches quite that good in Spring Training, but we did see a Slade Heathcott who looked fully healthy for the first time in years. You don’t make athletic plays like that without being healthy. Heathcott moved around very well in camp and looked great physically following his various surgeries.

“Honestly, my knee never crosses my mind when I’m playing,” said Heathcott to Chad Jennings in Spring Training. “I’m to the point that I’ve trained hard enough and ran enough and done the training that I need to do to make sure that it will hold up. It very seldom crosses my mind. So it’s really just the confidence of getting back in the swing of things.”

Heathcott’s apparent return to health and bonafide hot start have me feeling … conflicted. My head says not to excited because Slade has basically no track record of health. When we all look back at his hot start in August, we’ll laugh because it was just a hot start, nothing more. Know what I mean? This isn’t the first time Heathcott’s gotten off to a great start. He hit .370/.440/.616 in his first 18 games of 2011, for example.

At the same time, my heart is telling me hell yeah Heathcott’s healthy! This is all legit! He always had talent, that was never the question. Heathcott could just never stay on the field but now he’s doing it. This is great! How could you not get excited about what Slade has done so far this season? This is pretty much the best case scenario. Couldn’t ask for a better Spring Training and start to the regular season.

So which one should I listen to, my head or my heart? I think the answer is both. Heathcott sure looked healthy in Spring Training based on how well he moved around following a pair of recent knee surgeries, and he can do some exciting things if healthy, but at the same time staying healthy has been a career long challenge for Slade. An impressive spring and a great start to the Triple-A season doesn’t change that.

Against my better judgement, I find myself getting very excited about Heathcott and the prospect of finally (finally!) seeing what he can do across a full, healthy season. The Yankees have a lot of upper level outfield depth — Heathcott has been flanked by Tyler Austin and Ramon Flores in the Triple-A outfield, so yeah — so I’m not sure where Slade fits into the call-up pecking order, but if he keeps playing like this, he’ll force his way into the picture. He offers a dynamic two-way, power-speed game Austin and Flores simply do not. For the first time in a long time, there is a reason to be excited about Heathcott.

“Heathcott’s been very impressive. Very healthy, very athletic, very productive,” said Brian Cashman to Jennings at the end of Spring Training. “There’s optimism.”

How Betances became dominant Dellin again

I'm back and better than before. (Presswire)
I’m back and better than before. (Presswire)

One week into the season, and Dellin Betances was a mess. After three games, he had allowed only one run (unearned) but his lack of command was alarming. Betances issued two walks in each of his first three outings (six total) and struck out a combined three batters in those 3 1/3 innings. This was from a guy that in the final two months of last season faced 101 batters and walked four of them.

It was very small sample size, but following a spring where he also struggled with his mechanics and his control, he was facing questions about whether he’d be able to replicate his brilliant 2014 campaign and what had happened to his dominant stuff from one year ago. He had established himself as one of the league’s elite relievers in 2014, but at the start of 2015 he looked completely lost on the mound.

Fast-forward two weeks and the perception of Betances among the media and fans couldn’t be any different.

Dellin is dealing! Betances is back!

His last seven games, starting with an April 15 outing in Baltimore, look like this: eight innings, 28 batters faced, one walk, 14 strikeouts, two singles allowed. He has five straight appearances with no hits allowed and at least two strikeouts, the first Yankee pitcher in the last 100 years with a streak like that. Any questions?

Now that Betances appears to have put to rest any of those silly notions that last year’s incredible performance was a fluke, let’s take a deeper look at what exactly changed for the 27-year-old flamethrower in the past two weeks.

Location, location, location
Simply put, his biggest problem during that rocky start to the season was that he had no idea where the ball was going in those first three games. Only one out of every three pitches he threw was in the strike zone, a shockingly low rate compared to both the league average (47 percent) and last season’s number (52 percent). This is what that looks like in heat-map form, with last year on the left and his first three games from this year on the right:

betances last year vs first 3 location

You can sometimes get away with expanding the zone if you can also get hitters to chase those out-of-zone pitches. But that wasn’t the case with Betances during the first week.

His location was so bad — even in that small sample — that hitters had an easy plan when they came to the plate against Betances: don’t swing. In those first three games, batters swung at just 31 percent of his pitches, one of the lowest rates by any pitcher in the first week. As a result, he quickly dug himself into a hole in nearly every at-bat, throwing a first-pitch ball to 12 of the 18 batters he faced.

Behind in the count early and often during those first three outings, Betances was reluctant to unleash his devastating curveball, which allowed batters to sit on his fastball and wait for a hittable pitch or simply take a walk.

The key to his turnaround
Since bottoming out on April 13 against the Orioles when he allowed four baserunners and threw just 10 of his 24 pitches for strikes, Betances has done a complete 360-turnaround. He’s regained his command, throwing more than half of his pitches in the zone.

Now that Betances has found the strike zone again, he’s consistently getting ahead and quickly gaining the advantage in the at-bat. Over the last seven games, he’s started 17 of the 28 batters with an 0-1 count and 12 of those 17 plate appearances ended in a strikeout. That’s much better!

A key change in his mechanics related to this improved control is that he’s tightened up the release point on both his curveball and fastball, as you can see in the GIF below (the more spread-out series of dots is the first three games; the more condensed series is the past seven games).

betances release v.3

With a more consistent throwing motion, he’s now able to command his pitches better and his curveball/fastball combo also looks nearly identical to batters when coming out of his hand, making it harder for hitters to distinguish between the two pitches. The results: batters are swinging at a higher rate overall (41 percent), and more importantly, he’s more than doubled his percentage of out-of-zone swings from 16 percent in the first week to 38 percent over the last two weeks.

In addition to the improved location, Betances’ stuff is now looking much more like what he threw last year. Not only has his average fastball velocity increased to 97-plus mph in his most recent outings, but the horizontal movement on his curve has risen more than inch in the last two weeks compared to the first week of the season.

It seems like Betances has finally put himself back together on the mound and is rounding into his 2014 All-Star form. He’s more confident, throwing better pitches and appears to be settling in as the dominant reliever that we saw on a nightly basis last year. If Betances can maintain his mechanics and command of the strike zone through the remainder of the season, he’ll once again be a late-inning weapon that Joe Girardi can use in high-leverage situations and help the Yankees bullpen keep its status as one of the best in the league.